Heather Langenkamp Reflects on Acting and ‘The Butterfly Room’

The Butterfly Room poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is based on a screening and Q&A which took place back in 2014.

The Butterfly Room” is one of those movies which is being released under the radar. It just debuted at the Laemmle NoHo 7 without much in the way of publicity, and this a shame because this thriller directed by Jonathan Zarantonello proves to be a real treat for horror fans as it features several actors we affectionately remember from various horror and cult classics. Among them are Barbara Steele who is best known for her work in a number of Italian gothic horror films like “Black Sunday,” Ray Wise who left an indelible impression on us with his performances in “Robocop” and “Twin Peaks,” Erica Leerhsen who survived a few ill-fated horror movies like “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” and the remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Camille Keaton who suffered such unforgivable brutality in “I Spit on Your Grave,” Adrienne King who memorably decapitated Jason Voorhees’ mother in “Friday the 13th,” and P.J. Soles who showed us things we really liked in John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” Looking at this cast, you might think this was another version of “The Expendables” but with horror icons.

Another big horror favorite in “The Butterfly Room” is Heather Langenkamp who is still best remembered for her role as Nancy Thompson in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Here she plays Dorothy, a single mother who has her own reasons for keeping her son away from butterfly collector Ann (Barbara Steele). As the movie goes on, you find out exactly why Dorothy has such a bone to pick with her, and it is not worth spoiling here.

Langenkamp dropped by the Laemmle NoHo 7 for “The Butterfly Room’s” opening night to participate in a Q&A with the movie’s second assistant director Brian McQuery. When asked how she became involved with this production, Langenkamp explained it all started with a journalist friend of Zarantonello’s who introduced the director to her while at a horror convention.

Heather Langenkamp: This journalist friend was my introduction, and I noticed that Jonathan was lurking in the background (laughs) for several hours. Finally, we struck up a conversation and he gave me the script later. I have to say that when I read it, I felt that the part of Dorothy was one of the better parts that I’ve read in many, many years. I think, from what you see on the screen, she’s a very strong woman and she’s a very fierce mother and I really enjoyed playing such a part. I remember we got together at this restaurant in Santa Monica, and I think I shocked Jonathan a great deal by telling them how much I liked it and how I really loved this idea that this horror movie focuses on an elderly woman which is something that is really rare.

In addition to all the horror icons, there are also several child actors here who play kids that become way too friendly with Ann. Now there is a saying, the things to avoid while making a movie are working with animals and children, but Langenkamp found working with child actors like Ellery Sprayberry and Julia Putnam very informative and fascinating.

Heather Langenkamp: It’s kind of a lesson every day in how to be so natural and so in the moment, and I always get a lot of inspiration from children like Miko Hughes (who appeared opposite Langenkamp in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”) who was like that for me. You just zone in with them as they really experience the movie in a different way I think, and it is really refreshing. Ellery was really fun to work with, and I remember this one day when she had to go too long here to short hair too long hair and everybody was panicked. But Ellery was just smiling and taking it all in stride, and we had a lot of fun on the set as I remember.

Ever since her days battling Freddy Krueger, we have not seen much of Langenkamp. Acting for her has since become a part time job as she spends most of her days running AFX Studio, a Special F/X Make-Up studio in Los Angeles, with her husband David LeRoy Anderson. One of her more recent acting roles was as a character named Moto in “Star Trek into Darkness,” but her role as Dorothy in “The Butterfly Room” is the biggest one she has had in some time. This led one audience member to ask her if coming back to acting was like getting back on a bicycle to where everything comes back to you quickly.

Heather Langenkamp: I would have to say not at all like riding a bike. I think that you’re much more self-conscious about how you’re doing as you get older especially if you’ve taken time off. I was really worried a lot of the time about whether I was going to be able to get my chops back up to speed, and I’m happy with the way the movie looks on the screen. I’m much happier than I actually thought I was at about 6:45 tonight (the movie started at 7:40 pm) because I get a lot more critical of myself too as I get older. Both of those things combine actually, making for a very uncomfortable day today, but now I can relax. I don’t think it’s like riding a bike. I wish it was more like that.

But even after being away from acting, Langenkamp still has a great love for it. She explained why and also talked about what it was like working with Steele who is probably the biggest horror icon in this cast.

Heather Langenkamp: It’s probably my favorite thing to do. I think one the most creative things that a person can do is bring a script to life and think of the character and think of how you’re going to interact with someone like Erica. Those scenes were a lot of fun and especially all the scenes with Barbara Steele. She is one of my personal heroes and someone that I greatly admire, so I often watched her. She’s a very elegant woman and she’s very powerful, so sometimes I would just watch her and try to learn from her in the thing she did to be kind of a majestic creature in the film. I learn a lot from the people that I work with and I always and see what their techniques are and how they get prepared, and I take whatever I can from people like that.

Like many horror movies coming out today, “The Butterfly Room” was shot on a very low budget and had a tight shooting schedule. Moreover, Zarantonello started filming this movie back in 2010, and it is finally making its premiere four years later. With little time to make this movie, actors do not have the same luxuries available to them on big budget studio productions. Langenkamp described the pressures she faced and how she learned to deal with them.

Heather Langenkamp: It’s always difficult especially with wardrobe and hair when there’s really not enough time to get all that is necessary, and maybe there’s not enough personnel to take care of everybody. There are four or five ladies sometimes who all need to be ready within an hour of each other, and so we had very quick moments in the makeup chair sometimes (laughs) and you just have to put your vanity aside. That’s the hardest thing for an actor to do, but you realize you’re not going to get the hour in the chair that may be would make you feel more comfortable. In the end I really do feel like naturalism is the rule of the day, and looking as natural as possible as much as an actor. Maybe you don’t love it, but I do think that it adds to the reality of filmmaking. So, every time I didn’t get enough time in the chair, I would say in the end that it’ll be better for the film.

It is really great to see Heather Langenkamp back on the big screen after being absent from it for what feels like years. She may not be interested in stardom and is not looking to make a big comeback in movies, but she is still very much interested in giving the best she can as an actress. While she may forever be linked to “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to where many cannot see her as anyone other than Nancy Thompson, she can still hold our attention whenever she appears in a movie. Clearly, she is more comfortable these days running a special effects studio, but I do hope we get to see more of her on the silver screen sooner than later.

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

halloween-1978-poster

What is there to say about “Halloween” which hasn’t already been said? It has been discussed ad nauseam, and even Carpenter must be sick of talking about it all the time. Granted, he did take the time to record a new commentary track with Jamie Lee Curtis for Anchor Bay’s 35th anniversary edition, but when the 25th anniversary edition came out it just had the same commentary track from the Criterion Collection laserdisc.

We all know the story, and this is in large part due to the countless imitators who rushed to create their own psychotic killer following “Halloween’s” astonishing success. At the time of its release, it was the most successful independent movie ever made. Made for about $300,000, it ended up grossing over $50 million. “Friday The 13th” would never have existed without “Halloween,” and that franchise is far more responsible for those clichés horror movies exploit to infinity.

What I love about “Halloween” is how down to earth it is. All of these characters come across as very relatable. The way the script is written and how the actors played their roles, they easily reminded us of people from our own lives we grew up with. The only character in the whole movie who is NOT down to earth is Michael Meyers as he is a killer who has no real motive for why he heads back home to kill. As the movie goes on, we eventually stop seeing him as a person and instead as a force of evil which cannot be easily stopped.

We have all lived in a town like Haddonfield, a small town where families can raise their children in peace, or so it would seem, and the problems they face there end up paling in comparison to those they were forced to endure in the city. The parents see small town life as a home away from reality, but for the children it is reality. It is all they know. So when multiple murders occur there, it threatens to define the town more than anything else. Was there anything interesting about Haddonfield before young Michael Meyers took a knife to his sister when he was only a boy?

I also love how “Halloween” was shot. Working with Director of Photography Dean Cundey, Carpenter creates truly unnerving visuals of a killer lurking in the shadows. One moment Michael appears in the frame, and in the next he is gone. Michael could be anywhere and there is no escape from him. How does one escape from evil anyway? One of Carpenter’s main themes with “Halloween” is how evil never dies. It is a force which is with us whether we like it or not, and it is always just around the corner…

One of my favorite shots is when little Tommy is fooling around with Lindsay as they watch Howard Hawks’ version of “The Thing.” But when Tommy turns around and looks out the window, he sees a man carrying a lifeless body from the garage to the front door. The bullies at school kept warning him about the boogeyman coming, and it is an unfortunate and infuriating coincidence that they are correct. It is one of the creepiest images from “Halloween,” and it is one which always stays with me. Don’t you wonder what your neighbors are up as you look at their houses across the street?

The other brilliant thing about “Halloween” is how it was edited in such a way where you cannot be sure when or where Michael will appear next. The best example of this is when Laurie Strode is running away from Michael. Carpenter puts us right in her shoes as she desperately tries to escape the madman who wears an altered William Shatner mask. The editing plays with your emotions beautifully. You want her to escape, but you soon feel as helpless as her as she yells at Tommy to wake the hell up.

The moment where Laurie is at the front door of Tommy’s house, screaming for him to let her in, is one of the scariest scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It intercuts with her banging on the door while the Shape approaches her, and Carpenter succeeds brilliantly in leaving us stuck in a place we are desperate to escape from. Like her, we are begging for Tommy to unlock the door to where we want to yell at the movie screen, TV set or whatever device you are watching this movie on.

And who could ever forget the music? Carpenter’s score for “Halloween” ranks among the greatest horror movie scores ever composed to where I would put it up alongside Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho.” Carpenter’s musical work has been done mostly in a minimalist style, very much unlike the bombastic orchestral scores from every other Hollywood composer. After all these years, the main title for “Halloween” is a piece of music I never get sick of listening to. The music succeeds in heightening the ever growing tension which never lets up even after the movie is ovr.

The final shot is unnerving and utterly perfect in the way Carpenter shows how evil never dies. We see images we have become familiar with throughout the movie, and they now have the stain of evil on them. The point is point he could be anywhere at this point.

This is definitely one of my all-time favorite movies, and the recent 35th anniversary edition Blu-ray reminded me of how I never get tired of watching it. Jamie Lee Curtis is great here as Laurie Strode, the only one who is the least bit observant about what’s going on around her. Then you have P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis as Laurie’s so-called friends who frolic around, completely unaware of the killer stalking them from a distance. And you have Donald Pleasance, and his Dr. Loomis is a character which pretty much came to define the latter half of the franchise.

Many say “Halloween” originated the undying cliché of how teenagers who have premarital sex and do drugs are the first ones to be killed off. In the Criterion commentary, both Carpenter and the late Debra Hill make it abundantly clear they were not trying to lay any sort of judgment on these characters. Religion was not intended to shoved down our throats by anyone involved with this movie. These characters don’t get murdered because they are sinners, but because they aren’t paying attention to what is going on around them. Laurie Strode, on the other hand, is always very suspicious of her surroundings.

John Carpenter’s “Halloween” will always remain the best of all the so-called slasher movies in my humble opinion. There is no way anyone can top what he did with the 1978 classic, and this is even though Rob Zombie’s take on Michael Meyers was better than people gave his “Halloween” movies credit for. It has reached such a high level of praise in the ever growing pantheon of cinema to where duplicating its power is extremely difficult to pull off. The fact it still has the power to unsettle generations of audiences is a testament to Carpenter’s brilliance as a director, and its amazing success led him to make many other great films which continue to stay with us long after the end credits have finished.

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